The Malta Independent 29 February 2020, Saturday

Watch - Updated (2): 'Vassallo lied about paying Marsovin €8m for Lowenbrau land' - Robert Abela

Neil Camilleri Wednesday, 25 January 2017, 13:17 Last update: about 4 years ago

The Labour Party this morning accused businessman Nazzareno Vassallo of lying when he said he had paid Marsovin €8 million for a piece of land in Qormi.

Speaking at a press conference this morning, general election candidate Robert Abela said Mr Vassallo had only paid €900,000 in cash.

He was replying to questions by The Malta Independent, which pointed out that the PL had continuously changed its version, and had initially tried to give the impression that the former Lowenbrau land was sold to Mr Vassallo for €700,000, while hiding the fact that he had actually bought it from Lowenbrau for €8 million.

“It is not true that Vassallo paid €8 million,” Dr Abela said. “He is saying this in public but this is not the truth. This is another lie. He paid around €900,000 in cash and then absorbed Lowenbrau’s debts up to a maximum of 7.1 million.”

Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said PN MP Jason Azzopardi, who was the Parliamentary Secretary for lands in 2011, had his fingerprints all over the story, after revealing that Marsovin has summoned him as a witness in a case instituted by the Vassallo Group. Vassallo took Marsovin to court after he was paid €300,000 for a condition (stipulating that the Qormi land could only be used as a brewery) which was abusively removed in 2009. Mr Vassallo says the amount should be refunded by Marsovin.

“Marsovin indicated Azzopardi as a witness. This is more proof that his fingerprints are all over the process. He can deny this as much as he wants, run away as much as he wants, but the facts speak for themselves. His fingerprints are all over this case. If Marsovin did not believe that he was involved they would not have called him as a witness.”

Dr Abela added: “They indicated him to testify specifically on the 2012 contract and the negotiations that led to that contract. They did not only identify him by name but also on the reason they want him.”

Dr Bonnici took exception when asked, by this paper, if it was irresponsible for him, as Justice Minister, to interpret the reason why Azzopardi was summoned as a witness. At the end of the day a former PS for Lands was being summoned to testify in a case involving the Lands Department.

“Oh so Dr Azzopardi was indeed responsible for the department. Last week he said he was not. You cannot accuse me of being irresponsible simply because I stated a fact. Marsovin did not name Lawrence Gonzi or Tonio Fenech – they named Azzopardi.”

Dr Bonnici was also asked to react to comments by Professor Alex Torpiano, who yesterday slammed the government’s multi-million Qormi land evaluation.

“While the impression given was that Professor Torpiano was an independent commentator, he was actually defending his own work,” Dr Bonnici said. Mr Torpiano already made this argument to the NAO which, however, disagreed and said the value should have been much higher”

Dr Abela pointed out that Professor Torpiano was involved in the MIDI consortium. “Zaren Vassallo was one of the shareholders in MIDI,” he said, adding that he would let people come to their own conclusion. 

The PL speakers insisted that, back in 2011, the government was in a strong position to take back the Qormi land from the Vassallo Group, which was occupying it illegally. But the previous administration had given a good deal to Vassallo, instead of the public.

Robert Abela said that, after the condition was illegally removed in 2009, the contract should have been scrapped and the land valued as freehold with contemporary prices. “The 2012 contract is certainly legal but it is also an obscenity,” he said.

Dr Abela said Mr Vassallo had been occupying the land without title (since the 2009 transfer contract was illegal). “He knew the eight million he had paid were being endangered, and so were the €20 million he had invested on the site. Legally, since the contract was breached, the government should have revoked the 2009 contract and taken back the land. Mr Vassallo knew full well that his investment was being endangered, so he went to the minister, who promised him a compromise. Instead of reaching a deal that benefitted the public the government signed  a deal that benefitted only Mr Vassallo.

 

The Justice Minister rejected the suggestion that the PL was changing its story every week, and that he had initially hidden the fact that Mr Vassallo paid €8 million for the land. “I have already said that I am not interested in the commercial dealings between Marsovin and Vassallo. What I am interested in is the fact that a huge tract of public land was given away to the private sector and the government only received €700,000 in return. This is shameful.”

He announced that the government was seeking advice from the Attorney General on a potential remedy for the Lowenbrau deal.

Jason Azzopardi last week said this was a personal vendetta by the minister. Asked to react, the minister said: “Jason Azzopardi has a political responsibility to shoulder. He should admit he was wrong and apologise. Then he should resign. This is not an issue of vendettas. I am doing my job.” 

Azzopardi was never summoned to testify

Reacting, the Nationalist Party said Dr Azzopardi had never been called to testify in the case and that all evidence had been heard.

It said that another bubble had burst in the minister’s face but the Justice Minister was keeping up his personal attacks against the PN MP.

“According to Owen Bonnici, Jason Azzopardi is guilty because a private company put him on the witness list. Apart from the fact that the minister’s argument is illogic, the facts show otherwise. Jason Azzopardi was never summoned to testify and the evidence-collection stage was concluded long ago. Once again Owen Bonnici tried to take journalists for a ride. This is nothing but a failed strategy by Joseph Muscat’s government, which has given up on trying to defend its corruption and is resorting to mudslinging instead.”

The PN said that even this latest strategy had failed and this was laid bare by the Transparency International report, which has declared Muscat’s government as the most corrupt in Maltese history. 

 

PL reaction

The PL said this evening that the point was not whether Dr Azzopardi had testified or not but the fact that the company from which Zaren Vassallo had purchased the land considered him as the only minister that negotiated and signed the deal.

Jason Azzopardi’s “not me” reaction is not credible now that all fingers point towards him, the PL said.

 

 

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